Vanity, vanity…..

In about a month I will start one of several classes I teach yearly for Marquette’s College of Professional Studies, a degree program for returning adults:  a class in civic literacy, as opposed to academic literacy.

In one of the assigned papers, students will analyze and evaluate three different news articles on the same recent issue, using a 2007 Committee of Concerned Journalists’ six criteria as the basis for their evaluation: citizens should expect from journalists truthfulness, loyalty to citizens, independence from those they report on, giving voice to the voiceless, a forum for public criticism, and news that is proportional and relevant. 

It will be interesting to look at Brian Williams’ fall from grace this week in light of such criteria, and to discuss the difference between print journalism (it still exists) and the “celebrity” kind of news bites that is typical of NBC Nightly News, which I have often watched, by the way.

In terms of the criteria above, Williams, to many, definitely “failed” the important first criterion of reporting “truthfulness” and quite possibly the third: “independence from those they report on.”   (It will be interesting to see if any of my students choose this “event” to compare coverage by different national and international newspapers.)

It has been interesting to read the “side” stories related to Williams’ skewing of the “facts” involving his own role in a situation in Iraq in 2003. Some, like Tara Parker-Pope of the NYT, discusses Williams in terms of recent discoveries about memory itself: that Williams’ “conflation” of two events “offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.” At several points in this blog, I have considered how “selective memory” has no doubt affected me and the events from which much of my poetry springs.

But I am not a journalist, and if I conflate memories about my sister, there is no one left to question my “trustworthiness.” We do speak of “poetic license.”

But David Brooks, on the Op-Ed page of yesterday’s NYT, considers Williams’ “sin”  (how American is that?) in the light of something called “rigorous forgiving.”  According to Brooks, there are those who try to balance accountability with compassion. The whole article is worth reading, and I recommend it, but what interests me most at this moment is  Brooks’ classification of “sins”—each with its particular source and corresponding “cure” or reconciliation. Bigotry, for instance, must be expunged by “apology and cleansing”; stealing by repaying, and so on. Brooks identifies Williams’ “sin” as “vanity” which “can only be treated by extreme self-abasement.”  Unlike many, Brooks does not see Williams’ “transgressions”—unlike those of more traditional journalists—as “part of his primary job responsibilities.” He goes on to say that as a society we must do less exiling of offenders and more offering of “tough but healing love.”

I am all for that. But his analysis still begs the question of whether or not Williams intended to lie outright about his role in those helicopters over Iraq. Yes, I do tend to believe people’s stories, sometimes with little reason (see Jan. 5), but then I am always a sucker for stories.  I sometimes have trouble figuring out the “truth” of my own experiences, but I am well aware of how “vanity” can skew one’s “take” on things.

For instance (stay with me a moment):  maybe Williams wanted on some level to be a “part” of what he was only supposedly “reporting” and thus “exaggerated” what happened that day—told himself a different story in which he was in more danger than he actually was.   He was obviously no James Foley or any of the other world-wide journalists who have lost their lives by daring to put themselves in danger so as to bring “truth” to those who would otherwise not have access to it. But maybe Williams admires such people and (in this story I’m weaving) wanted to be like them so much that his memory “re-shaped” the events on those helicopters so as to make him seem a bit more like what he admired.

Have we not all done this? If we have not actually told a whopper to someone else, inflating our own importance, have most of us not told such “stories” to ourselves? Are these deliberate lies? or have they moved surreptitiously– as memories apparently do– from “truth” to “wish”?

They used to call publishers that accepted payment to publish any manuscript “vanity presses.”  And as I suggested in my last post, often writers will go to at least some length to hide the fact that they have published their work themselves instead of having it “chosen” by someone else.

As a species we seem hard-wired to seek out the approval of our peers.  We want to feel useful and, at least in our culture, important in some way. Exile or isolation is a pretty extreme punishment in all cultures.  Currently, as a culture, we seem to have “exiled” Williams for “untrustworthiness.”  I understand that it’s wrong to take away from someone else’s legitimate (i.e. documented)  hardship story by saying that you experienced the same thing when you didn’t.   But how do we separate/rank the “wrongs” of wanting to be part of something; of vanity; of wanting to be valued? 

Don’t we all make up the stories of our lives: our own histories, to embellish and add interest to the single “history” that we “agree on”?  I guess it’s important to have such an agreed-upon history, but I’m sure glad we have individual stories about it as well. Sometimes that’s where the deepest meanings can be found.

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